With a statewide COVID-19 eviction moratorium set to expire May 1, tenants in City Council District 40 demanded their city representative take a stronger stand for tenants’ right to legal protection.
At an April 28 rally in front of Council Member Mathieu Eugene’s office, tenants in the district and organizers from the Flatbush Tenant Coalition berated the council member for his late support of a city council bill that would guarantee legal counsel during eviction proceedings. They also criticized Eugene, who was present at the rally, for ignoring requests for meetings about the bill since December.
“We have been calling you, no response,” Flatbush resident Judith Douglas told Eugene. “Your people are struggling and we need your support.”
Eugene has represented District 40 for more than 13 years.
“Some people are out of work, that is why they can’t pay their rent,” said Paulette James, a District 40 tenant who rallied on the sidewalk outside Eugene’s office. “Some people have apartments where their family [members] died.”
James, who lost her job at a daycare center when the city shut down last year, joined more than 20 other tenants and organizers at the rally. Group members have pushed Eugene to support the Intro 2050 bill, which would guarantee all low-income New York City tenants the right to legal counsel during eviction proceedings.
As of April 28, Eugene was a co-sponsor of Intro 2050, but tenants and activists said his support came as a reaction to the scheduled rally.
To the apparent surprise of tenants and organizers, Eugene himself showed up to the rally outside his 900 Rogers Ave. office. Upon arriving, he enthusiastically requested to speak through the megaphone.
“I am a co-sponsor of the original bill,” Eugene said at the rally. “And I have been one of the people who fought for the right to counsel to exist, and I will continue to do that.”
The original right-to-counsel bill passed in August of 2017, and city council records show Eugene was a co-sponsor. That bill, according to council records, was designed to phase in legal services for all low-income city tenants within five years.
It currently gives tenants in 25 zip codes access to free legal services, according to the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition. Those zip codes include 11226 and 11225, which are within Eugene’s district.
The new Intro 2050 bill would expand those services citywide. Eugene blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for not meeting with constituents about the legislation.
“My staff, they are not here, they are home working,” Eugene, who is running for Brooklyn borough president in June, told the protesters. “It is not the same thing as if [my staff] were in the office. I cannot deny that you have been trying to reach out to me.”
Eugene did not directly address questions about whether his late co-sponsoring of the bill was a reaction to the rally, saying that he has “never been intimidated” by protests. “This is one of the things I am very strongly supportive of,” Eugene said, about legal counsel.
About seven minutes into Eugene’s speech, protesters grew restless and drowned out the council person with chants of, “the tenants united will never be divided.”
As the council member left the rally, some organizers thanked him for showing up. But others criticized his attempt to control the message.
“He was speaking to us as if we do not know that this is a housing crisis, as if we do not know that we’re in a pandemic,” said Sarah Guillet, an organizer with Flatbush Tenant Coalition. “It took him months to give us any attention.”
Right to counsel in New York City
Current right-to-counsel legislation in New York City only applies to certain zip codes and covers tenants earning at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, or $24,980 for an individual.
A committee-level vote on the new Intro 2050 bill was scheduled for the morning of April 29, per the city council website. Legislation must pass committees before it comes up to a vote before the whole council.
“He still has to vote,” James said at the rally. “Us being here, I think it will give [Eugene] the encouragement.”
Tenant organizer Sabrina Francois said her organization made multiple requests to discuss the bill with Eugene by phone, email and social media. She demanded better communication from the council member.
As an organizer, Francois said she helps tenants find legal representation and work together, to fight for their collective rights. Among more than 200 tenants in Flatbush and southern Crown Heights that she currently works with, Francois estimated that one in three are Haitian-American.
“This is not the first time,” said Francois, an organizer with the Flatbush Tenant Coalition. “[Eugene] usually doesn’t like to sign onto things unless he’s called out.”
Tenants who qualify for legal representation in an eviction case can find information about how to access an attorney here.